COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- On a night when former Terps’ standouts Byron Mouton, Rodney Elliott, Greivis Vasquez and several other high-energy, consummate “glue guys” returned to College Park, perhaps it was fitting that Rasheed Sulaimon shined brightest Nov. 17 at Xfinity Center. In just his second regular-season game in a Maryland uniform, the senior Duke transfer willed his team to a 75-71 victory over former rival Georgetown.
Like his predecessors, who watched from behind the Maryland bench, Sulaimon didn’t so much fill up the stat sheet with a gaudy scoring total. Rather, he came up clutch when called upon to convert; he locked down defensively without letting up; and he rallied his teammates when the situation looked dire.
“[Rasheed] has been around the block; we knew he was going to be fine in big games,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “He’s older, a senior. Rasheed, I thought he was great. … Our communication wasn’t great but in the end, when we had to do it, our guys were all dialed in. And I thought Rasheed’s leadership was terrific.”
There were more than a few momentum-swinging moments Sulaimon was directly responsible for. But the play that will linger in the minds of the Maryland faithful came at the end of regulation, which is when reputations are crafted.
After scoring seven points on 3-of-3 from the field in the first half, Sulaimon couldn’t buy a bucket during the latter frame. Didn’t matter; cagey veterans don’t press after drawing iron.
With 1:15 to go and the score deadlocked at 68, Sulaimon rose up in transition and drained an elbow 3-pointer, sending the sold-out Xfinity Center crowd into sheer bedlam. The Hoyas, tougher and grittier than Maryland throughout, finally gave in, unable to recover.
“Rasheed, he kept saying the same thing: ‘We’ve got to make the right play.’ Every time we came down the floor he kept saying we had to make the right play,” Terps’ forward Robert Carter said. “So Rasheed came down, and we have more than enough confidence in him to make the shot -- and he made it.”
Sulaimon, however, demurred after listening to his teammate’s comments. He deflected the praise -- just like he deflected a couple L.J. Peak field-goal attempts Nov. 17.
“It all started with Melo [Trimble],” said Sulaimon, who finished with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting, including 2-of-2 from distance. He added in seven assists, two boards, a steal and just one turnover in 37 minutes. “[Trimble] had the ball in his hands, he made a great play driving down the lane, and he made a great read [by] kicking it to Jake [Layman] … And Jake is a great shooter. He could’ve taken the shot, but he passed it to me, and that gave me confidence. It gave me the confidence to make a great shot for my team, and fortunately it went in.”
Of course, Sulaimon connected on more than a few shots during the first half, with the Terps struggling out of the gate. Although the Duke transfer wasn’t the only Maryland player who helped UMD’s cause, it seemed every time Georgetown seized control, it was Sulaimon reeling the Hoyas back in.
With Maryland trailing 9-0 after almost three minutes of play, the senior broke the ice with a nifty 15-footer, spurring a mini-run. Then a few possessions later, Sulaimon ran off a series of eye-opening plays on both ends of the floor. First, he hit from the elbow to draw the Terps to within three points, 11-8. Then, as the Hoyas brought the ball up, the sticky-fingered Maryland guard thrust his hand into a passing lane; came away with a steal; and fed Robert Carter for a transition dunk. Finally, Sulaimon capped the run with an alley-oop to a streaking Michal Cekovsky, who gave the Terps their first lead, 12-11.
The senior wasn’t finished. In-between pestering Georgetown’s Peak up and down the floor, Sulaimon was dishing out assists right and left; moving the ball around the perimeter; leading the fast-break; and burying triples in a defender’s face. Indeed, with just 23 seconds left before half, Sulaimon stepped out and canned a game-tying three, a foreshadowing of his end-of-regulation heroics.
“It was very important,” the point guard Trimble said of Sulaimon’s first-half performance. “He really picked us up getting assists, scoring baskets. When my head was down and I wasn’t making shots, Rasheed told me, ‘I still believe in you.’ So that really helped me.”
Per Sulaimon, that’s merely Senior Leadership 101. He noted how his teammates came out jumpy and weren’t playing together or actively communicating, so it was up to the veterans to calm the crew down.
“You could see it early on, adrenalin pumping and we got a little outside of ourselves,” Sulaimon said. “But that’s one of our jobs … as experienced guys to say, ‘We’re fine, just relax.’ And once we got in a groove a little bit we really took off. Especially in the latter parts of the game we really believed in each other and made every play we needed to … We showed a lot of poise tonight.”
His last statement referenced the game’s final six minutes, when Georgetown’s lead almost reached double-digits. At that point, the raucous crowd grew eerily quiet as the realization settled in: The home team probably didn’t have enough juice this night.
But behind a surge of buckets, courtesy of Trimble and Layman, UMD clawed back, setting the stage for Sulaimon’s dagger triple.
“We just didn’t want to lose the game. We were down with 6 minutes to go, but I kept telling [the guys], ‘There’s a lot of time in the game,’” Sulaimon said. “Earlier in the game we were down seven … and in less than a minute we tied the game and even went up. So we were just trying to stay positive, pump each other up and just stay poised.
“We were so confident in ourselves … and we just knew we were going to make the right play. We knew if we kept getting stops on defense, at some point our offense would click and we’d get back into the game. Once we got into a flow, got into a rhythm ... Once we settled down, trusted the coaches, and started executing our offense, everything kind of opened up for us.”
That’s Rasheed Sulaimon in a nutshell -- consummate glue guy.
Mouton and Co. couldn’t have said it better themselves.